We know that most words are learnt from context and not through direct instruction. However, there is still a strong case for teaching individual words. While context is where the majority of words come from, explicit teaching of words will likely give students a greater command of those words chosen for instruction. The time needed to teach vocabulary is precious so we need to decide what types of word we should spend time on.
A single encounter with a word will be unlikely to ensure full and rich knowledge. ‘Knowing a word’ starts from knowing just the sense of a word e.g. that ‘obnoxious’ has negative connotations. Students can then know a word in a particular context so they may know the word ‘argument’ in the sense of two people arguing but not in the sense of someone stating a case. They may then know what the word means but be unable to readily access it to use in writing. Then finally a student can have a full and rich knowledge of a word and ability to use it in a range of contexts. So when we talk about ‘teaching a word’, we are actually just incrementally increasing students’ knowledge of that word.
And even that idea of teaching a word is a little more complex: students need new words for things they already know, new words for new concepts, new meanings for old words.
I would recommend that we think about teaching the following types of word:
High Utility/ Command words
A high utility word is a word that students are likely to encounter again and again in academic contexts. These words are often the ‘command words’ used in exam questions and words that they will need to understand in order to perform well in school. Take this question from a WJEC English Literature GCSE Higher Paper:
One of the themes in To Kill A Mockingbird is prejudice. How does Harper Lee present this theme in her novel?
First of all, students of English Literature should be able to understand what a theme is. They will also know what prejudice is, having studied the text. Obviously, these will be taught in class and as they are readily attached to concepts pupils will generally understand them. Some may understand ‘theme of prejudice’ only in the context of To Kill A Mockingbird however. The breadth of the course should allow multiple exposures to the word/concept of ‘theme’ and one would hope that a student has encountered that word before GCSE level anyway.
The word ‘present’ is the most interesting word in this question. It is the type of word that will throw a student if they do not understand it. The word should therefore be taught. There are a number of these academic words that students will come across in a range of subjects. A glance through a GCSE Physics paper shows that students are required to understand subject specific vocabulary plus words like ‘discuss’ ‘explain’ ‘calculate’.
There are so many words that students can be taught. As an English teacher, I want students to be precise in their writing. I also want them to be precise when responding to texts. In the WJEC GCSE Unit 1 exam (reading) students are often asked the question: “What are your thoughts and feelings about x?” or “What are the writer’s thoughts and feelings about x?” A rich vocabulary allows students to be precise which helps when they need to make similar yet subtly different points. Usually they will be able to identify the tone but without a rich vocabulary they are unable to articulate the full range of thoughts and feelings. Therefore, I would recommend teaching a range of words which allow precision. I like Geoff Barton’s list as an example of complex sophisticated vocabulary for English Literature. Here is another great list of precise words about speech.
Many words are introduced to students as synonyms e.g. a teacher could introduce a number of different replacements for ‘said’. Even though these are initially presented as having the same meaning there are invariably shades of meaning. ‘Uttered’ is not the same as ‘said’ even though it is synonymous. It is good to explore these words in relation to each other, e.g. by placing on a continuum or by asking students to choose the right words for a particular question. If the price of petrol went up would I be unhappy or apoplectic? If I saw an elephant would I describe it as colossal or enormous?
Again, different subjects/ topics will have their own precise words.
Vocabulary relevant to the text
Other words that we should consider teaching are those which will help students with a text. I choose the following example from experience as it is one that caught me out recently. Here is the first stanza of London by William Blake:
I wander thro’ each charter’d street/ Near where the charter’d Thames does flow/ and mark in every face I meet/ Marks of weakness, marks of woe.
In this stanza we could identify ‘charter’d’ as a word worthy of discussion. ‘Mark’ is a possible new meaning of a known word and ‘woe’ may be an unfamiliar word to some. Without a knowledge of these words then the stanza and actually much of the sense of the whole poem is lost. ‘Mark’ and ‘woe’ can be adequately addressed with a “it’s another word for…” to get a basic sense of the meaning but ‘charter’d’ proves trickier so would benefit from some work before encountering it in the text. (This poem is also a prime example of the need for knowledge in the English curriculum as the meaning of the word ‘charter’d’ only really makes sense as part of the historical context of the poem)
While the example above is not a word that students will readily use in their own writing afterwards, in most cases the words they encounter in texts will be transferrable and usable in a range of contexts. You wouldn’t teach every unfamiliar word from a text, especially a novel, but it is worth thinking in advance of words that are crucial to understanding or that are ‘high utility’ enough to be useful elsewhere.
Efficient teaching of words- an example
The best way for students to learn words is through multiple exposures to them in a range of contexts. Here is how I am planning to increase the range of my year 10 students’ vocabulary in the run up to their GCSE exam. I cannot spend a disproportionate amount of time so I have endeavoured to be as efficient as possible.
As an example, one of the past exam papers we will study provides many words ripe for instruction. I have chosen the following ten words: typical; hostility; nuisance; apparent; occasional; ferocious; compassion; indiscriminate; demonstrate; immediate. I have assigned this vocabulary homework for students to complete in advance of us reading the paper. The homework has a definition of the word in a sentence and then how the word is used. The definitional and then contextual information is crucial for understanding. The COBUILD dictionary has been of great use in creating this. They then have to use the word in two sentences.
Then, when we read the exam paper, these words will be more familiar so the comprehension of the text will be greater. The multiple exposures to the words will help their word knowledge to increase and for these to move towards their readily used vocabulary. I have tried to select words that can also be used in a range of written texts to help students with their vocabulary in the writing exam.
For my year 11 students, who are revising texts for their English Literature exam, I have tried to select words that can give them precision. For An Inspector Calls, I have selected the following: inevitable; prosperous; society; establish; typical; authority; denouement; consequence; compassion; demonstrated. I will also use these in my spoken language over the course of the revision on An Inspector Calls. The words will appear in my model answers and selected words (e.g. inevitable, establish, consequence) and will be used in further work on Of Mice and Men. I have given the words for homework but they could easily be a starter activity.
My other vocabulary posts:
Unfamiliar words Part 1: context